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Pitt’s star power couldn’t help ‘James’

Specialty film fails at box office despite Brad

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” signals a trend that leaves Hollywood worried as 2007 rings out: A number of pics touting the biggest stars couldn’t find their groove.

Specialty films like “Jesse James,” featuring Brad Pitt and directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, joined others starring Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in getting lost at the box office this fall.

“Jesse James” has grossed just $3.8 million domestically and another $7.5 million overseas. It’s still playing in 30 or so theaters in the U.S., with Warners hoping for a bump from its awards runs. But with such low box office, the film is in a precarious position.

All the publicity is putting a lot of pressure on Mike Nichols’ Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which unspooled Dec. 21.

The idea that the biggest stars aren’t bulletproof is nothing new; it’s just never happened to this extent in one year.

And, in the case of “Jesse James,” it once again raises the age-old question — at what point does a studio take back power from the filmmaker?

Making “James” was a long and arduous process. There was a well-publicized tug-of-war between director Andrew Dominik, who caught Hollywood’s attention with indie title “Chopper,” and Warners over the editing of the film.

Warners’ wasn’t entirely in sync with the pacing of the movie, or the length (one cut ran more than three hours). Dominik was thinking more like Terence Malick in examining the relationship between the famous outlaw and his eventual assassin, Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck. Warners was in favor of having at least a bit more action.

Dominik based his script on the book by Ron Hansen.

Ultimately, Warners went with Dominik’s version, even though Dominik didn’t have final cut as part of his contract. Part of the reason was that Pitt, who produced the movie through his Plan B shingle, backed Dominik. At one point along the way, Pitt and exec producer Ridley Scott had put together their own cut. When it tested to only so-so results, they went back to Dominik’s.

Another chief reason is that Warners considers itself to be a filmmaker-friendly studio. That has been one of the hallmarks of Jeff Robinov’s tenure as prexy of production, and he soon will be transitioning to a larger role at the studio.

“We’re not a place that says, ‘It’s my way or the highway,’ ” one Warners executive says.

The studio says “Jesse James” cost $30 million to produce. Shooting was actually completed in the latter part of 2005; the release was delayed by more than a year until September 2007 due to editing.

By the time “Jesse James” opened in five locations Sept. 21, Warners had tempered its expectations; usually, when a film underperforms at the box office, there’s all sorts of hand-wringing back on the studio lot.

Warners is surprised, though, that Pitt isn’t getting more awards attention in the U.S. after winning best actor for the pic at the Venice Film Fest.

So far, it’s Affleck who is feeling most of the awards heat. Affleck nabbed a Golden Globe supporting actor nom, and won the supporting actor nod from the National Board of Review.

One studio exec says people are in the mood to be entertained — regardless of the name on the marquee, at least to some extent.

“I think it’s the movie, not the movie star,” one studio exec says. “Movies like ‘Juno’ have the accumulation of great contemporary resonance, and you have a dazzling breakthrough performance in Ellen Page.”

The star that turned out to be the legend of the 2007 box office? Will Smith, whose “I Am Legend” debuted at $76.5 million, the highest opening ever for a December pic.

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